THE TRAGICALLY HIP HIT THE STATES W/ WORLD CONTAINER
By Brian Kenney
So whatâ€™s so special about being Canadian? In essence, things seem to be a bit simpler with our northern neighbors. And thatâ€™s not being diminutive. Beer, hockey, small-town life, oh and the Tragically Hip. In a country that prides itself on a low-key, simple existence, the only thing that may exist on a monumental level is the Hipâ€™s popularity.
Appearing on the scene in 1986, at the height of Bon Jovi hysteria, the Hip composed simple odes of humble, Canadian life inspired by the folk of Gordon Lightfoot, the slide guitar harmonies of the Eagles, the cerebral lyrics of REM, with an indie splash of the Replacements. The tight-knit Kingston, Ontario quintet had a simple sound and a simple formula: play music and earn enough to support your habit, and donâ€™t have expectations outside of your means. “Weâ€™ve always approached our career by keeping our eyes on the not-too-distant horizon: one record at a time and one tour at a time,” bassist and founding member Gord Sinclair told The Marquee in an interview that traced the Hipâ€™s foundations and earliest inclinations through their 11th and most recent studio release World Container.
The Tragically Hip, bassist Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, and vocalist/lyricist Gordon Downie, have made a career of lyrically and sonically representing the simplified essence of folk life. Throughout 20-odd years of making music, they have amassed accolades worthy of the title of Canadian ambassadors of music; in addition to 14 Juno Awards (Canadaâ€™s Grammys), with World Container nominated for four more. They have a star on Canadaâ€™s Walk of Fame, have been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in 2005 were presented with an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Conservatory of Music.
All the while, they have maintained a musical compass, kept a pulse on their fan base, and preserved themselves as a unit, and letâ€™s face it, even the most steadfast of accomplished bands (Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) have found that difficult. “Weâ€™ve grown up doing this. From wide-eyed university kids to family members with responsibilities. And while our outlook on the whole thing has changed, weâ€™ve maintained this family sense, which is predicated on mutual respect,” Sinclair said. “Early in our career we had a â€˜very Canadianâ€™ meeting where we decided to share equally everything that happened to us: monetary credits, writing credits. So as to eliminate all the things that break up bands.”
For years, at least on American soil, they have been flying under the radar, finding fan-friendly pockets in upstate New York, Chicago, Ohio, and Colorado, as Canadaâ€™s answer to REM. Their allure as Canadaâ€™s best export since Wayne Gretzky is, in part, due to the theatrics of their expressive, eclectic, glassy-eyed lead singer Gordon Downie.
Downie is drop-dead captivating in his ability to literally improvise during live performances. He possesses a penchant for stage presence that puts him in the elitist of elite company of front men, strategically and subliminally weaving long-winded improvised narratives of stranded sailors, or tales of machine gun-toting rumrunners, or anecdotes of killer whale attacks. “Way back, when we were a bar band, weâ€™d play B-side covers with great structure and riffs and Gordie would remember the first verse and the chorus and then heâ€™d forget and make the rest up. It became fun that way,” Sinclair said of his enigmatic lead singer.
Some of those improvs became the foundation for World Container. Upon hearing that the Hip were nearing the studio again, a fellow Canadian appeared on their radar. Enter Bob Rock, renowned for producing industry heavy-hitters across genres (MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e, Metallica, Cher). To say that Rock was courting the Hip is an understatement, for he admitted that when he met Downie he had “visions of the making the â€˜Great Canadian Album.'”
Rock considered the relaxed vibe of the Hip a pleasure to work with. “Bob very quickly shared his passion for the project. Heâ€™s an infectious music guy. Heâ€™s like a walking musical encyclopedia,” Sinclair said.
The result, World Container, is an approachable and well-balanced disc, from the Snow Patrol-esque “In View” to the Beatles-inspired crybaby wah wah of Downieâ€™s vocals in “Fly,”to the piano-driven “Pretend,” which could be Downieâ€™s version of Carole Kingâ€™s “Home Again.” “I am very proud of this record,” Rock recalled when World Container was in the can. “Now, did I make â€˜The Great Canadian Album?â€™ Time will tell,” he answered himself. “I will always call it â€˜my Great Canadian album.”